Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading begins with our first mention of Abraham (then called Abram). At this stage he is living in Ur of the Chaldeans with his wife Sarah (Sarai). God then told Abram to travel to a land where he will be directed and where he will become the founder of a great nation and his name will be made a blessing. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain. While there Jesus’ face and clothes shone brightly; Moses and Elijah appeared next to him. Astonished, Peter suggested that they set up tents for the three of them. A voice then came from the clouds and told them that “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” The disciples then fell out of fear but Jesus told them to stand up; Moses and Elijah has disappeared. Jesus then told them not to tell anyone about this until after the Son of Man rose from the dead.
Lent, and indeed Easter, means nothing if it doesn’t lead to some sort of change in our lives. Each year Ash Wednesday challenges us to reform our lives and return to the Gospel. Truthfully most of the time that calls us to act in a certain way: turn away from an addiction or a bad behavior pattern or begin a new, more constructive pattern. But sometimes change is thrust upon is and we are called to recognize it and respond well to it.
Given that it’s no surprise that we start this with the famous Abraham (he’s called Abram at first; later on God changes his name to Abraham). Years ago former President Jimmy Carter wrote a book called The Blood of Abraham recognizing that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all trace their origins back to this man. We don’t know much about him but we do know that he’s married; unfortunately they have not been able to have children and are beyond childbearing age. Given this it must have seemed just a little cruel for God to promise that he would father a nation and his name will become a blessing. Of course we all know the rest of the story: he and his wife do have a son, who has his own children, who… well you get the idea.
Whenever I hear stories like this I wonder what would have happened if he had declined the offer. He could have, you know. Much has been written to “fill in the blanks” in his life but we do know he had at least some wealth. And while it was generally assumed that not having children was God’s curse he and Sarah were far from alone. His life in Ur may not have been what he dreamed of but it would have been good enough for most.
But he said yes to an uncertain future and that made all the difference, not only for him but for all the Jews, Christians and Muslims who descended from him. Indeed it can be said that he is the father not only of many nations but the entire Western World.
He was faced with a decision much like Peter, James and John. Again, we know the rest of the story, how they became the Church Fathers, but they don’t. As a matter of fact we call this event the “Transfiguration” to connote a change. It’s a big deal not only because of the voice coming out of the clouds but also because Jesus is seen with two of the largest figures of the Old Testament. At the end of the reading Jesus tells them not to say anything until after the Son of Man rose from the dead; we know that he is foreshadowing his resurrection. That statement must have puzzled them; then again we all can point to experiences when someone in authority says something we don’t understand and we just ignore it.
Abraham, Peter, James and John all stand today at a crossroads of sorts. They have choices over their next steps but they can’t go back as if this never happened. Abraham could stay in Ur but he would spend the rest of his life wondering what would have happened and bemoaning his lack of children. Does this mean God would just choose the guy in the next tent or would God just give up and not found a nation? Likewise Peter, James and John are given a strong indication that Jesus is more than a good guy with refreshing ideas and the ability to perform miracles, he is the Messiah. What happens if this looks like more than they signed on for? Do they just go back to fishing for a living?
The closest most of us will experience this type of crossroad is a marriage proposal. A couple may be serious but once a proposal is, well, proposed, there is no going back. The answer may be yes or no but the road changes either way. The couple who discern the same decision welcome this while a partner who doesn’t want this change recognizes a new reality.
Now that said, we face few of these huge, life changing experiences in our life. These readings need not drive us into fear of following God lest we be forced into decisions that scare us. Instead let us look toward the fact that God does not place us with these choices haphazardly. But if we are to grow in discipleship we need to take seriously that we won’t be the same person we would have been otherwise. It can come in hundreds of small choices and opportunities: we are moved by a sick child in our neighborhood to donate toward her care. One of our children invites us to consider becoming a blood donor. A politician who embodies our values asks us to knock on doors.
We will, hopefully, experience hundreds of transfigurations in the course of our life. And as someone who spent a great deal of his career working with the elderly I can safely say I never met anyone who wished he had ignored his call and lived for himself.